Notes from an Indian highway

Kilometer 130, NH 44.

Towns and villages along Indian highways that connect major cities are being transformed in ways that will have significant bearing on the growth trajectory of this country. It is in these locations that India is changing perhaps more rapidly. One tends to imagine the metropolis as a site of reading transformation in a society, which sometimes give rise to world-is-flat kind of narratives. These are important. But the metropolis cannot speak for the country, especially India.   The observations here can be seen as typical of economic transformation that happens when countries build essential infrastructure like roads. However, the unfolding process (of change) itself can have unique and contextual effects. I was thinking of these when I covered 270 kilometers of a National Highway last week, on a bicycle, in a bid to travel at least 1000 kilometers. November and December are good time to do this as the temperatures in South and Central India are bearable, but the winds can be strong enough to make one rethink about a non-motorized travel.  I abandoned the ride and flew home later. Here are some notes from this little slice of a road.

I have seen the National Highway 44 (NH44) that connects Bengaluru to Hyderabad for over a decade now. I have used this highway to ride home, at least once every year. A decade in this country is a long time. It feels long not in its duration but in the pace  of change – landscapes, towns, farms. As I write this, I can think of several other highways, which form the ‘golden quadrilateral’ connecting the major metropolises of this country. Along most of these highways life has changed in its pace and content by the simple yet dramatic force of easy access to distant places. Even as Indians settle in with these national highways (and learn the conventions of driving, lane discipline etc), the new wave of expressways is hitting fast enough, which will be multi-purpose – as defense infrastructure (runway for fighter jets of IAF?) etc.

On the NH 44, I rode a bicycle from Bengaluru to about 50 kilometers beyond Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh. It took ten hours of cycling to cover 234 kilometers. This distance is a matter of about two hours of safe and easy driving in a car and about similar time on a touring motorbike. These have been my preferred modes. I thought it might be a good idea to slow down and ride along on a bicycle. In the two days spent riding NH 44 I could see and compare the small towns with what I have seen of these places in the last nine years. The most important development is a big mushroom of a site – a car factory, that has come up in less than a year’s time in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh. Besides, the smaller towns in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh have been undergoing plenty of subtle changes – land use pattern changing from agriculture to industry and commercial use; penetration of farm machinery; numerous vegetable carrying mini-trucks that are now loading horticultural produce straight for the big cities; volume of people moving between home in rural areas to work places in cities and the number of private schools and colleges opening up in smaller towns. All these, if not directly, are indirectly linked the arrival of this fast, four-lane highway. Also, with increased industrial activity, there are a lot more new workers on this highway, which has also triggered a growth in supporting ecosystem of restaurants, dhabas and cheap housing for the workers.

Erramanchi, Anantapur. NH 44
Erramanchi, Anantapur. NH 44


It is hard to miss boards announcing guesthouses in Korean script as one nears Anantapur. These are the new additions. A board for ‘Korea Town’ is the most striking in this hitherto highway side, somewhat sleepy district of Andhra Pradesh. KIA Motors of South Korea is setting up its car manufacturing facility in this district, complete with its own helipad. With it, there are over thirty other ancillaries units that are coming up in the vicinity to support the project. The factory is projected to need 3000 workers when operational. As of now, there are thousands of construction workers. The highway along this stretch suddenly turns diverse with workers from different countries and different states of India. At night, this is an illuminated site with a size of a mid-sized town. I am intrigued by this transformation. Workers have turned remarkably fluid in their mobility to any site that can promise work, at both international and national levels. The ease and rapidity with which the support ecosystem of hotels, restaurants, transport agencies, equipment rental, placement and recruitment agencies etc grew in less than a year is enabled by the single-most important factor – a big, fast highway.

It has been often cited that the Interstate Highway System in the US has been important for its very rapid growth since WW-II. It increased the country’s economic competitiveness. A similar trend can be seen with the NH system in India. As I noted earlier, towns and cities gain immediately  with accessibility. Second, labour market pool in most  urban centers where work is found, expands. The underlying effect across most sectors – education, healthcare, logistics, employment and even tourism, is that the participants get the benefit of arbitrage. Their range of options increase and the cost of moving between choices is lowered by ease of access. Gulzar Natrajan wrote about these effects on his blog, way back, in 2010 – A ‘big push’ in roads?His list of effects are all that I have seen happening in the last decade.

I tried food at these small highway side ‘hotels’ that cater to workers and everyone else looking for cheap food. It is striking that for INR 100 – 130 what one gets is a meal of rice and a preparation of tomatoes (chutney?) to go along. No lentils or curry! The nutritional quality of food is concerning. I am not sure what can be done about it. Clearly, the workers are not going to spend more than INR 200 per day for two meals. This would, in most cases, be more than 50% of their daily wages. May be, they cook in their quarters to keep the costs low, as is the practice. But then that adds a significant burden to an already laborious day. The other side of the story is growth of these hotel-restaurants run by local families. This is an unregulated space with serious health and sanitary concerns. But also, this is typical of highways in the country. It is an economic opportunity for all and sundry. If the road connects two important cities with a lot of traffic of rich and middle class travelers, then we have all the major, middle to high range restaurants cornering the market (ex – Bengaluru – Mysore highway) and if it is an important trucking route (ex – Hyderabad- Nagpur highway) then there are the dhabas catering to truckers. Having eaten at a variety of these restaurants serving their specific clientele, it appears that those at the cheaper end serve the poorest quality of food. Obvious as it might sound, this is a serious occupational difficulty that those who work in logistics, transport and travelers with less money on them, have to live everyday.

A detour into the highway-side towns and villages show another side of the story, unfolding in fascinating ways. These towns have become a source for all service industry resources, from vegetables to workers. And this is adding significant cash in the local economy to raise consumption of goods and services.

NH 44
NH 44

Sometimes, it appears as though the larger economic forces in India are pulling the masses up, by the collar, in doing things and adjusting to changes that are introduced by the few who decide. Ageing population, livestock herders, farmers and other variety of tradesmen found in rural areas have been hit the most in this kind of transformation. This is seen in the lifestyle changes that they report they have had to adjust to. For instance, livestock herders have had their pastures cut down drastically due to changing land use pattern. Moreover now they are mostly middle-aged or older men and women tending to the sheeps, goats etc. The young either leave for cities at the end of these highways or have other jobs to do that are often outside their towns and villages.

Life on either side of these highways is so different that the occasionally stopping traveler from the city cannot imagine easily. They stop by for the classics of rural India – tender coconuts, seasonal fruits and vegetables directly from the farms. There is much on the upside, about the changes in towns and cities. These are mostly to do with rapidly changing socio-economic profile. Cultural effects are hard to identify in short spans. May be there is room for a few ethnographic studies on the highways of India. These are busy places and getting busier. And continue to be chaotic with wrong-side driving, crashes, wildlife straying on highways, roadkills, towns and villages claiming their spaces on the highway for grain drying etc. Add this the footloose and forever marching army of workers who show up wherever there is promise of work.


One thought on “Notes from an Indian highway

  1. As ever, your observations are thoughtful and sensitive to social and economic currents in your country. Thank you for sharing them.

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